Two men who changed my life
In my life, I have met some wonderful teachers and some terrible ones. Great ones who led me along a path of learning. Terrible ones who could only see the world their way. Wartburg brought many of the best teachers I have ever known into my life. Two of them taught me things that stay with me today.
When I started at Wartburg, I didn’t plan to major in computer science. For one thing, Wartburg didn’t have a degree program in computer science at that time. You got a math degree, with lots of computer classes. For another, I was going to be a teacher. I had known this since second grade.
Somehow, even though I was planning to be an elementary education major, my advisor from day one was Dr. Lynn Olson. Doctor O was the computer professor at that time. I didn’t understand at first why I was assigned a computer science/math advisor. It turned out to be quite the prescient decision by someone.
My first advisor appointment with Dr. O had the expected outcome: two required classes, plus Introduction to Computer Science and a survey of education class. Easy choices, registered and done.
Dr. O taught the computer class. We learned how to program while learning FORTRAN. The classwork came easily to me. The logic and flow of both the coursework and the programs we wrote made sense to my brain. I loved putting together the projects, debugging them, and finding the “right” answers.
That idea of “right” answers was my first gift from Dr. O. He didn’t require us to do things his way — he inspired us to do things our way. At the beginning, all of the programs looked the same, but after a few projects our personalities started to come through. Whether it was the implementation of the project or what we used as variable names, we all learned that computer programming was something unique and fun.
I loved that class and I believe it showed in my work. I wasn’t the top student, but I was in the upper ranks. The programs I put together worked well and were full of clean code. I participated in class. I helped others when they were stuck.
The education class didn’t go nearly as smoothly. I was in love with the idea of being a teacher. I wasn’t in love with, or very good at, learning the background of education. This was the first history class I didn’t love — and the idea that I didn’t love it was very foreign to me. There was a lot of reading and writing to be done during the semester. Both of those are things I loved then and still love. But the topics assigned just didn’t come easily to me.
When it came to finals week, I had an easy A in the computer class. On the other hand, I had worked hours and hours on the education class — and had a middling C. The world was trying to tell me something I didn’t want to hear.
Then Dr. O gave me gift number two: A final project and a final test that I aced. In fact, I had the second highest score in the class on the final test. While up on Becker 2 (the computer math floor then), Dr. O congratulated me on a great final project and final test. The idea of a teacher telling me I had done that well… that was new to me. Having him tell me I had done great? Made me happy to my core.
Over the holiday break, I heard what the world was telling me. I decided to change to a math major so I could do the computer classes. Surviving the change wasn’t easy: I had managed to set myself up with an impossible course load for the second semester. If I had listened to Dr. O when I set my schedule, I would have been much better off. (The story of that semester is a story to be told at a different time…)
My sophomore year, Josef Breutzmann joined the Wartburg faculty. I don’t have the words to describe the impact Dr. Breutzmann had on my life. It wasn’t as obvious as Dr. O’s. Dr. B’s impact wasn’t as immediate as Dr. O’s, but it was just as lasting and just as strong.
The first class I took from Dr. B was Data Structures — taught via the Pascal language. We learned searches. We learned sorts. We learned linked lists. We learned so much more. We also learned that programming could be a lifelong profession and love.
That class changed my life again. Not as drastically as FORTRAN had, but with just as long term of an impact. The class moved fast. We in the class didn’t know it, but we were working through one of the toughest data structures books published at that time. It wasn’t meant to be taught in a single semester of undergrad work. We didn’t get through the full book — we only got through the first half. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I learned when most students covered that book.
The computer crew of those classes turned into friends. Many of them turned into family of choice. A number of them are still in my life, happily. Dr. O and Dr. B were part of our family of choice. They supported me (and a number of my friends) with babysitting jobs several nights a week. They were there to help with classwork when we got stuck. They were there to help us grow into full-fledged computer scientists.
All that was very helpful. But the thing that makes these two my favorite teachers/professors of all time is what they taught us over the course of four years: How to find what we needed. These two gentlemen taught us all that if you know how to find the information you needed, you wouldn’t ever need to depend on your memories. Over the years, the research and learning skills from these two have helped at least as much as the facts and languages they taught us.
Learning how to learn is a Wartburg specialty. The idea that you don’t have to know everything, that you don’t have to memorize things, that instead you need to know how to find answers? That is the thing that has made me who I am. Memorizing is easy. Learning that it is better NOT to memorize is life changing.
I doubt either Dr. O or Dr. B will ever see this piece, since they are both retired now. But if you know them, you know why they changed my life. If you see them, please thank them for me. I wouldn’t be who I am without Wartburg. Without them.
Today is a great day to support Wartburg College! Give via my link and help me win a pair of socks! (Unsure how much to give? Try something related to your graduation year!)